Insider Only Penguins becoming a top destination to develop college hockey forwards

Penguins bolster Next Wave of Prospect Group

The Penguins signing of top NCAA scorer Zach Aston-Reese is being looked at around the league as the rich getting richer. Aston-Reese is not regarded by scouts as the type of blue chip college prospect Jimmy Vesey was seen as last year, but the general consensus from scouts is Aston-Reese has a chance to be a productive bottom-6 NHL player.

Aston-Reese, 22, led the NCAA this past season with 63 points (31G-32A) and had 31 goals in just 38 games. In four years at Northeastern, Reese has 148 points (66G-82A) in 145 contests. A Hobey Baker Award finalist, Aston-Reese posted a 20 point improvement in points this past season, going from 43 to 63.

The significance for the Penguins is this:

Multiple agents (while officially representatives for college players) contend the Penguins have become a top destination for college free agents, a drastic turn from a few seasons ago.

And it really has nothing to do with the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup last spring.

It’s because of the development of key players like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Jake Guentzel, among others, and how good of a system the Penguins have setup in Wilkes Barre where as a forward you’re not only in good hands with a very good coaching staff down there to develop the right way, but you have individuals in Bill Guerin and Mark Recchi to learn from that puts you in the best position to get to the next level. It doesn’t get much better than it.

Guerin and Recchi were two key components in the recruitment in landing Aston-Reese. As mentioned a few months ago, Guerin’s stock as an eventual top GM candidate continues to rise around the league for his ability to evaluate talent and develop young players, multiple NHL sources say.

Agents are always advising players in situations like Aston-Reese was in to have their eye on what the best situation will be development wise that maximizes the players’ potential on a second, third contract. Pittsburgh has suddenly become that destination in the mold of how the Blackhawks and Rangers have been viewed.

Despite the gaudy offensive numbers from Aston-Reese, scouts don’t see those numbers translating to the NHL and feel he’s not a good enough skater to be able to create his own shot consistently enough.

But, the tools are there to have a good NHL career as a bottom-6 player who could be a factor on the power play as a net-front player.

What the Penguins like about Aston-Reese is the 200ft game and the snarl he plays with below the dots. He’s heavy on pucks, a tenacious fore-checker, has some Patric Hornqvist type traits in how he competes in around the net. Scores a lot of goals off tip-ins, rebounds and in the slot. Plays much bigger than his 6-foot-0, 205-pound frame.

“The foundation to play in the National Hockey League is there,” a scout said of Aston-Reese.

Another evaluator called Aston-Reese a classic LA Kings type player, in how heavy of a game he plays, but felt he still has a chance to be a fit in the Penguins system.

For the Penguins they continue to set themselves up extremely well to plug in cheap labor around their high salary players for the next several years.

The next Wave of Prospects who will be pushing for regular NHL roles over the next 1-2 years is headlined by Daniel Sprong who has top-6 ability, and also includes a group of mostly bottom-6 type prospects the Penguins feel could compete for roles, including Oskar Sundqvist, Zach Aston-Reese, Josh Archibald, Thomas DiPauli, Teddy Blueger, and Dominik Simon.

Sprong who is tearing up the QMJHL as an overaged player, he has all the tools offensively to be a top-6/top-9 talent and also carries high trade value.

The rest of the group will give the Penguins options to plug spots if needed over the next year or so.

Doing some surveying of that group, Aston-Reese may have the most upside of Sundqvist, Archibald, DiPauli, Blueger, and Simon in the feedback I’ve received because of how well he can play without the puck and be a force in the dirty areas.


— For now, 2013 6th round pick Blaine Byron who had a strong season at Maine with 41 points in 36 games, does not intend to sign with the Penguins. The talk is Byron intends to sign with the New Jersey Devils.


— The Penguins are planning to put the full-court press Want the Full Story? Get "Inside Access"

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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